What do you think about when we talk about fossils? Dinosaur bones? A footprint in a rock? Something frozen in time, rigid, no flexibility; a shadow of the past? While fossils are cool in a museum, they are mostly of plants and animals that are extinct.
No one wants to be a fossil, right? Yet every day we see businesses lean back on their legacies rather than look forward, perceive the industry as it was ten years ago rather than how it’ll be five or ten years from now. And by doing so, they confuse innovation with expecting that the same processes and products will produce the same results if they only recreate them with new technology or buzz words. The companies have become more rigid, growth-averse, and inflexible — like fossils — albeit with a chance to not yet be extinct.
We all know the story of how Blockbuster passed on the chance to buy Netflix in 2000 for $50 million. That was fossilized thinking. Today, Netflix is a multi billion dollar enterprise, and now experiencing its own new threats as the market reshapes itself. And Blockbuster? They’re extinct.
In service, we’re now seeing the Netflix / Blockbuster story in fast motion as more companies jump on the service bandwagon, creating new competition and bringing new innovation into the once rigid discipline of service delivery. Companies with a “fossilized” approach to their outlook on the industry, go to market strategy, and the way they deliver service will simply lack the adaptability to thrive in this new service landscape. Amazon is a great example of a business that is continuing to be creative even after it has become a behemoth. Microsoft also recognized they needed more than to sell operating systems for PCs.
It is the thinking in companies and the nature of their leaders that make them open to innovation and not becoming fossils. Technology solutions are part of our digital age, but don’t replace the need to rethink business models. This is bigger than abstractions like change management. In order to de-fossilize yourself and your business, you need to think and reflect on yourself and your business in a fundamentally different way. Don’t be part of “organizational fossilization” on your way to potential extinction. Instead live in a dynamic of growth and creativity.
I hope you all watched the presentation of Linda Hill at IFS’ World Conference or if you missed it, purchased the book Collective Genius. The types of leaders conducive to innovation are so because they create the atmospheres where fossilization can’t happen due to ongoing creative abrasion, agility and resolution. These types of leaders while albeit rare, are critical to have in a business that stands the test of time to avoid extinction. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it, but will provide some complementary tips to be considered and reconsidered along-side in an ongoing cycle of self-reflection for business leaders.
Disavow Yourself of a Defensive Mindset
Teaching Smart People How to Learn is a study that was published nearly 30 years ago in the Harvard Business review, and it’s just as relevant today as it was back then. In it, the author discusses how when confronted with new ideas and critical assessments, business leaders often double-down on defensive thinking, in a way fossilizing themselves as they are in a moment—as the “smartest person in the room”, a person with pedigree—rather than accepting, reflecting upon, and internalizing new ideas.
This is an organizational problem as much as it’s a business problem, and it’s one that requires something simple, yet so often overlooked in the C-suite: Humility. So much in the world of successful business is built around progress and problem solving, yet egos and the need to be a recognized contributor so often serves as the biggest roadblock to doing that successfully. Recruit and cultivate talent and thinking that are considering what you want to be as a company ten years from now, not simply creating silos around you of those who have proved successful in the past.
As the article says, managers need to evaluate their own theories-in-use. Without realizing how they fall back on that fossilized reasoning and defense of their own position, any change that is attempted will be seen as merely a fad or a proof of concept rather than a potentially life-changing inflection point to a business.
Avoid the Trap of Categorical Analysis
The best way to begin that self-reflection and to start to eliminate your elements of defensiveness would be to disavow yourself of the sort of categorical thinking that packs the power of critical reasoning into boxes on an assembly line.
In yet another wonderful HBR article, the author discusses the many ways that we, as humans, rely on arbitrary containers with which to evaluate elements of business. Our total addressable market is X, our service delivery model is Y, our product portfolio is Z. It’s in here that I first got the idea for this article, as the author uses “fossilization” to describe a worldview set in stone, freezing categories in place.
In service, an area that is the bulk of our economies and a topic I care greatly about, categorical thinking means missing at times incredible business opportunities that by not pursuing can cause irreparable damage to a brand. For example, in manufacturing, the fossilization of product categories means completely missing out on the opportunities that servitization would offer and only focusing on improvements happening in the factory. Another example that I’ve seen among organizations is a remarkably fossilized view on things like parts management and reverse logistics. That, I believe, will be a revolution of differentiation for customers, and merely requires a slight adjustment to a categorical mindset on what inventories look like.
So—How do you begin to move away from a categorical mindset? Just like with the internal defensiveness discussed earlier, you do it through thoughtful collection and analysis. What are you analyzing? You’re analyzing information collected internally and externally. How do you decide where to take that information from? That’s the hard part. It’ll come from your customers, from your competitors, from your execution partners, and from independent parties. But none of those things in and of themselves are static, and if you consider them as such, you’re essentially re-fossilizing yourself.
That’s why it’s just as important to have meetings at regular intervals where you effectively evaluate if your perception of the industry is still accurate. That’s where it’s important to have some of that humility that we were talking about before. For this all to work properly, you need to reinforce this creative culture every step, and make it repeatable. This will allow for collection and reflection to happen in sequence, and for it to enact meaningful change in your business.
Presumably, none of us want to be fossils, but if we remain entrenched in an unchanging view of our business, our industry, and ourselves, we’re potentially doomed to extinction. With some thoughtful reflection, and the right systems in place, you can avoid fossilization, and build towards opportunities that you may not have even seen before. And do read Collective Genius with an eye to thinking about the type of leader you can become to manage the paradoxes and tensions around true innovation for results. Our businesses need us to cultivate their growth and dynamism – not their fossilization.
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